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Anti-American Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr gave a "final warning" to the government Saturday to halt a U.S.-Iraqi crackdown against his followers or he would declare "open war until liberation."
A full-blown uprising by al-Sadr, who led two rebellions against U.S.-led forces in 2004, could lead to a dramatic increase in violence in Iraq at a time when the Sunni extremist group al-Qaida in Iraq appears poised for new attacks after suffering severe blows last year.
In the statement, al-Sadr lashed back, accusing the government of selling out to the Americans and branding his followers as criminals.
Al-Sadr, who is believed to be in Iran, said he had tried to defuse tensions last August by declaring a unilateral truce, only to see the government respond by closing his offices and "resorting to assassinations."
"So I am giving my final warning ... to the Iraqi government ... to take the path of peace and abandon violence against its people," al-Sadr said. "If the government does not refrain ... we will declare an open war until liberation."
But an uprising like the one al-Sadr threatened Saturday would ultimately fuel inter-Shiite fighting through Sadr City and other Shiite communities.
Intense fighting between Iraqi security forces and al-Sadr's Mehdi Army continued Saturday in the southern city of Nasiriya and in Sadr City, the cleric's Baghdad stronghold.
Twelve people were killed in overnight fighting Friday into Saturday between Iraqi security forces and the Mehdi Army in Sadr City, an Interior Ministry official said. Six dozen people were wounded.
In Nasiriya, sporadic clashes spilled into Saturday, leaving four police officers and 16 militia members dead, the ministry official confirmed. The clashes prompted authorities to impose a curfew in the city Saturday.
In another southern city, Diwanyia, which witnessed deadly fighting between Iraqi forces and the Mehdi Army last month, officials discovered 14 decapitated bodies. An interior ministry official said the bodies appear to be a few days old.
Meanwhile, Iraqi troops began a new phase of the security operation launched March 25 by Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, dubbed Charge of the Knights. The operation aims to clear militants from their strongholds in the southern Iraqi city of Basra, a spokesman for the British army said.
The operation began early Saturday in the Hayania district, with British artillery and U.S. aircraft hitting open ground as a show of force, Maj. Tom Holloway said.
Iraqi troops, working with U.S. and British military teams, were in control of Hayania by the afternoon, said Maj. Gen. Abdul Karim Khalaf, a spokesman for the Iraqi Interior Ministry.
The troops did not face much resistance but encountered explosives planted on the roads as they entered, Khalaf said. They were able to defuse them and were searching house to house for wanted "criminals" and illegal weapons.
"As with the earlier phases ... this continues to be an Iraqi-led, -planned and -executed mission," Holloway said. "Coalition troops are ready to provide support to Iraqi Security Forces as requested and required."